Ep 26: The Teenage Achievement Trap

Episode Summary

Brandilyn Tebo, bestselling author of The Achievement Trap and a retreat leader and life coach, says it’s important for parents to help teens build a sense of self-worth. This episode is full of word-for-word scripts you can use to make it happen with your own teenager.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

A fear of shame can be pretty darn motivating. We can place our teens’ worth in their accomplishments, like a carrot in front of a bunny rabbit, and get some impressive results from them. However, if they stumble and mess up, our teens will experience shame.

If our teenager’s sense of self-worth tied directly to their achievements, they might feel unworthy of love after falling short. When teens feel this shame, they can sometimes try to cope with dangerously self-destructive behavior. But if we don’t motivate our teens with an innate fear of shame, how can we be sure they’re inspired enough to achieve success on their own? Are there ways to help teens build a sense of self-worth that will inspire them to be successful?

I’m here with the amazing transformational coach, Brandilyn Tebo, to provide the answer!

I was definitely eager to hear if she knew some ways to help teens build a sense of self-worth. Brandilyn is the author of The Achievement Trap: The Overachiever, People-Pleaser, and Perfectionist’s Guide to Freedom and True Success. She believes everything we do should be a joyful form of self-expression, and not a fearful form of self-justification. She travels the world teaching empowerment workshops to high schools, prisons, colleges, and Fortune 500 companies. Her website features a blog, and a podcast, and all of her knowledge is backed by research! 

The Achievement Trap

The idea that you’re only good enough by virtue of your accomplishments is what Brandilyn calls The Achievement Trap. 

The Achievement Trap tells us that being worthy of love is not our birthright. It’s a belief that Brandilyn finds highly objectionable, because as social creatures, humans need to feel loved. She wants all of us, especially teens, to learn that we are worthy of love regardless of our level of success. 

When pursuing ways to help teens build a sense of self-worth, parents need to identify their own self-esteem issues that’ve been passed on to their offspring. Brandilyn explains that the Achievement Trap is an inherited belief system that parents pass on to future generations, mainly out of love! This is because parents believe that if they ignore the value of success when pressuring their children, then their kids will fail to make anything with their lives. She understands this parental fear, that kids will be unhappy and unfulfilled if they are not motivated to be successful.

It’s so easy to believe that the best ways to help teens build a sense of self-worth are through pressure tactics. If your teen isn’t pressured to get straight-As, doesn’t that mean they will be less likely to have success and happiness? This isn’t what Brandilyn believes. A perfect report card is not the best predictor of success, and it’s a terrible predictor of happiness. 

Choosing Who You Want to Be

Yes, there are worthy benefits to having academic success. However, Brandilyn is confident that straight-As can be a byproduct of a healthier goal, and not the goal itself. There are ways to help teens build a sense of self-worth free from the fear of failure.

Brandilyn believes that in order to find ways to help teens build a sense of self-worth, we need to teach them to choose who they want to be in every moment. Teens need to know that they don’t have to get straight-As to prove they value their education. They can choose to be a curious learner regardless of the results.

One of the most effective ways to help teens build a sense of self-worth is to teach them that results don’t actually matter. Results are irrelevant to how teens perceive themselves. In fact, Brandilyn points out that if you are being who you want to be “in the moment,” then the results will show up. If a teen chooses to be a curious learner, they will probably learn and get a good grade.

This might sound like wishful thinking, but this alternative idea to The Achievement Trap is what Brandilyn’s research and teaching is all about!

The “Secret to Happiness”

Brandilyn swears that ways to help teens build a sense of self-worth begin with a simple idea. She says the idea of being committed to something and simultaneously unattached to the results is the “secret to happiness.” But how do you learn to be unattached to the results of something you’re committed to?

There’s nuance between being committed to your teen get straight-As, and ensuring your teen values learning. When your commitment is to a perfect report card, both you and your teen will feel ashamed when they come home with a B. When the commitment is to the learning itself, though, you will both have the freedom to address the sub-perfect report card free of shame!

Among the most valuable ways to help teens build a sense of self-worth is refraining from placing too much importance on grades.  If you criticize your teen for getting a B, they might be more motivated to get an A, but that is different from being more motivated to learn. If your teen is afraid of the shame of a B, what’s to stop them from cheating to get the A? If your commitment is instead to the value of learning, then the B means something totally different! Instead of the grade being a failure, it becomes an opportunity to grow. You can say:

“Hey, nice work. I can see you’re learning. What might you do differently to learn more next semester? What is hard to learn about this subject?”

This detaches the grade from the child’s sense of self-worth. It still emphasizes that learning is important, but it does so without attacking your teen as a bad learner. If you are unattached from the idea of a perfect report card, you have the freedom to be curious about what your teen is struggling with. You can inspire your teen to overcome obstacles by reinforcing their identity as a good, curious learner.

To free ourselves up to have these conversations and find ways to help teens build a sense of self-worth, Brandilyn notes an important step that parents ought to consider…

Sourcing the Fear

Brandilyn explains that we’ve all been programmed to motivate ourselves through fear and shame. We are taught them as supposedly proven ways to help teens build a sense of self-worth. She believes that as a parent, though, the best thing you can do is look within yourself. In what ways are you still holding onto beliefs about The Achievement Trap?

Your kids are going to be affected by your behavior around this belief system. It’s important to look out for ways they’re picking up leftover beliefs about The Achievement Trap, and addressing them. The best question you can ask, according to Brandilyn, is:

“Who are you afraid of losing love from?”

For example, if your child comes home crying because he or she got a C on their report card, ask that question. Often, it does have to do with the parents. Your child might be afraid of losing love from you because of their grade. And if a child fears they have lost the love of their parents, they are often going to lose their love of self, too.

If your child can admit that they are afraid of losing your love, you can reassure them that your love isn’t conditional, and they can stop using fear and shame as motivation. You can help them refocus their energy on what matters most: to be inspired by the opportunity for learning, and not by a grade. Asking this question is just one of many positive ways to help teens build a sense of self-worth.

Reinforce Choices, Not Results

Another question still has to be asked:

Why might your child believe they will lose love from you because of a bad grade?

They picked up that belief from somewhere.

Brandilyn suggests parents consider the ways they talk about their children to other parents. For example, do you talk about your teen as a straight-A student? Or, is your teen a great listener, careful with his sister, and devoted to learning the trumpet? Publicly noting positive lifestyle choices and aspirations are ways to help teens build a sense of self-worth. 

When we talk about the ways our child is living that we’re proud of, we can reinforce our love for who they choose to be. This inspires teens to do more, rather than be afraid they are not doing enough.

If parents aren’t careful, kids can inadvertently become a means through which the parents “succeed.” Brandilyn asks that parents take the time to root out the ways they’ve inherited the ideas of The Achievement Trap. We want to be sure we aren’t passing on those fears to our kids. Instead, we can teach our children that we’re proud of them for who they choose to be in every moment, free from the results.

An Amazing Resource

There are so many nuances to finding ways to help teens build a sense of self-worth. There’s so many different angles to wrestling with shame and The Achievement Trap. Thankfully, Brandilyn is an amazing resource for this conversation. 

In addition to identifying ways to help teens build a sense of self-worth, we cover the following topics in this episode:

  • The Illusion of Dissatisfaction
  • Digging for Root Commitments in Teenagers
  • The “Two Types of People Who Run”
  • Approach Orientation vs Avoidance Orientation
  • Dissecting the Beautiful Word: “Discipline”
  • Brandilyn’s Assessment Guide for The Achievement Trap
  • Mastery vs The Appearance of Mastery
  • Healing for Parents

Please give this episode a listen!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Before or after your teen loses a soccer game:

“Whether or not you win the soccer game means nothing about you. It means nothing about your loveability and nothing about your worth. And we’re unconditionally proud of you regardless. And let this be an opportunity for you to practice being unconditionally proud of yourself and to empower other people in being unconditionally proud of themselves and to unconditionally love themselves.”

-Brandilyn Tebo

2.  After your teen fails at something or is getting less-than-stellar results:

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3.  When your teen seems insecure about their body:

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4.  When your teenager seems very concerned with social media:

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5.  When your teen is feeling like a failure:5.  When your teen is feeling like a failure:

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6.  When your teen is worried about their performance in school:

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7.  If it seems like you often commend your teen for something external like grades:

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Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1.  Help Your Teen Understand the Commitments Behind their Goals:

What are your teen’s current goals? Take a moment to think about the main achievements your teen seems to be pursuing right now in various areas of life. Brandilyn told me it’s important to help your teen see the deeper inner achievements they are striving for as well. How does your teen think it will make them feel to accomplish their desires? Excited? Confident? Proud? Loved? Cool? You can encourage your teen to start acting excited, confident, proud, loved, and cool right now, regardless of whether they achieve the goal or not. On a piece of paper, list the current goals your teen seems to be pursuing. Then, for each goal, jot down how your teen thinks it will make them feel when they achieve this goal. Now talk to your teen and ask if you were right. Tell them the ability to feel the way they want to feel is already inside of them and they can choose to feel that way right now if they want to.

2.  Affirm Your Teen for the Human Being they Are:

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Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: So, read the book, The Achievement Trap and really cool stuff. It strikes me as like Brené Brown meets some Buddhist Eastern thought based in psychology, which is really cool. As a research psychologist, myself, a lot of stuff in here I found myself saying, “Oh yes, that’s backed up by research.” So really cool and I wonder what inspired you to write it? What is The Achievement Trap? How did you discover it and what inspired you to write it down?

Brandilyn: Yeah, so The Achievement Trap is this phenomenon that I was seeing unfold with so many different people in my life, but in very, very different ways. I was in my own achievement trap for like most of my life, but it took me becoming a coach and a retreat host, I was working with people, seeing the conditions that they were dealing with in their lives to kind of start putting all of the threads together. So it wasn’t really my own experience of the achievement trap that had me start writing about it. But it was having so many different conversations with people who struggle with workaholism, or with eating disorders, or with drug addiction, or with perfectionism, or with never feeling good enough and just realizing that it was all the same beast, just wearing different clothes.

Andy: Yeah at the core they’re all suffering from the achievement trap. So what is that and how does it work?

Brandilyn: What is the [inaudible]. Yeah, so the achievement trap is the idea that you’re only good enough by virtue of your accomplishments. That being good enough is not your birthright. Being worthy of love is not your birthright and deserving to live a really [inaudible 00:01:53] happy life is not your birthright. It’s something that you have to continually earn and if you stop achieving, and if you stop producing by society’s standards of production, then you lose the right to all of those things.

Brandilyn: It induces this sense of fear and panic in people. It’s very familiar to all of us. Any time that you feel that frantic need to do more, any time that you feel uneasy about how much you accomplished in a day and you start forward thinking about, “Okay, how can I overcompensate for already feeling like I’m not enough?” Any time that you feel like you have to put on a show for other people, you have to be liked, you have to please others. All of that is just different forms of that root sense of not feeling innately good enough. That is the achievement trap.

Andy: It strikes me that it’s like a form of conditional self-acceptance. It’s this situation we put ourselves in of withholding our own empowerment until we’re able to achieve something or accomplish something. I was really interested talk to you about this topic, because I feel like in the parenting literature, people are talking about helicopter parenting, and I think from the other perspective, like this idea that we’re kind of instilling this need to achieve and to get into a good college and to have the resume with the laundry list of every club that we were president of and whatever. That we’re kind of like instilling this into our teenagers from an early age.

Andy: I’m really interested to talk to you about where this comes from and if there are things that parents are doing that are maybe leading to this, and if there are things that parents can do that can help teenagers find that unconditional self-acceptance and empowerment right now, you know?

Brandilyn: Yeah, absolutely. And, oh gosh, this is so important because we all inherited the achievement trap. None of us created it. Why would we create something so fear-based and unfulfilling? We didn’t create it. It’s literally like a conversation that we were born into, this conversation of your productivity is your worth. Parents definitely pass it on to future generations and they do so out of love because they believe that if they’re not instilling within their children this idea that your productivity is your worth, because they’re in the achievement trap, they think that that is going to make their kids not create anything with their lives and then therefore become unhappy and unfulfilled.

Brandilyn: So really, the biggest shift that needs to happen is rather than teaching our kids that your results give you access to who you want to be, we need to teach our kids that choosing who you want to be in every moment is the most important, bar none, and that the results are actually irrelevant. However, when you’re being who you’re most committed to being, the right results will show up, but you don’t even need to pay attention to that. You don’t even need to focus on results. You need to focus on who are you being? Who are you showing up as in every moment?

Brandilyn: For example, this idea that you’re only allowed to be confident when your body looks a certain way, that’s a very prominent example of the achievement trap. I think parents unintentionally pass that mindset off to their kids because they want their kids to be able to feel confident when really what they need to teach their kids is confidence is unconditional. Confidence is not something that you have to earn. It’s a choice and you can choose to be it in any moment of time. And from being confident, then the actions that you would take are given by that way of being. You don’t have to earn the right to be that way by proving your worth.

Andy: This is something that I have thought about a lot. One of my favorite business philosophers, Jim Rohn, talks about this and he says that what he’s found in his life is like, there’s a way of trying as hard as you can to accomplish something, but still being completely detached from the outcome and being okay with happens. I don’t really know how to teach that. I feel like you have touched upon it in this book. You have a chapter on how being okay with who you are now doesn’t mean that you don’t want to improve yourself at all, right? So I guess what I’m getting at is how do we walk this line between escaping the achievement trap, but still doing things that contribute to other people’s lives and contribute to the world in a positive way?

Brandilyn: Totally, yeah. That’s probably the most important question that you can ask about this book and this idea of being committed and unattached is the secret to happiness. I swear. It’s like the thing that we all need to learn. How can I be committed for example, to making a difference for somebody else and be unattached to how that’s showing up? Because if I’m authentically committed to making a difference for someone, but I need for them to get better, then that’s my own ego stuff that’s going on. That’s not really me just being authentically committed to making a difference for them.

Brandilyn: If I’m authentically committed to making a difference for them, then I just keep being however I need to be, just keep trying on ways of being to try and make a difference for them. And then if they are making changes, then great. If they’re not, then I’m still free to keep being that way. But if I’m attached to the result, then as soon as they’re not being who I need them to be, then I’m going to start being reactive and I’m going to lose my power in that situation.

Andy: You’ve given them power over your internal state.

Brandilyn: Yeah, exactly. So being committed to what matters to us most in life and being unattached to when or how that happens, just gives so much freedom and flexibility. And then the second question about how can we let go of the achievement trap and still create so much in our lives? So much positivity? And there’s a chapter in the book, stop being dissatisfied. We’re under this mass illusion that the more upset we are with ourselves, the more motivated we will be. So to go back to the health example, we somehow believe that if we’re ashamed of our bodies as they are, that that’s going to motivate us to want to be healthy. When really there’s two motivating forces in the world, and one is shame and the other is inspiration.

Brandilyn: When you’re in the achievement trap, you’re motivating yourself from shame. When you’re free of the achievement trap, you’re motivating yourself from inspiration. I believe the inspiration is way more powerful of a motivating force than shame is. I don’t know that to be true. Maybe you can do the scientific research and prove my theory. But regardless, what I do know is that it’s a lot more fun to be motivated from inspiration than to be motivated from shame.

Andy: So how do we inspire teenagers through inspiration?

Brandilyn: Let’s think of an example, I’m trying to get present to what a teenager’s life is like. Let’s say that there’s a teen that plays soccer and he or she is feeling consistently really frustrated and upset with themselves because they feel like they’re not good enough at soccer. The conversation for that parent to have with them is not to encourage them to be upset and dissatisfied with themselves. So no languaging about like, “Just use this feeling and channel this into doing better and into practicing. Use this feeling of being upset with yourself.” That’s not the conversation to have.

Brandilyn: The conversation to have is to sit down with that teen and say, “Why does soccer matter to you? Why do you play soccer?” And then digging for what the root underlying commitment is there. Is the commitment they play soccer because they love having teammates? They love that sense of being on a team? And if so, then you inspire them from that. It’s like, “Okay, awesome. So you love this sense of community. You love the sense of being on a team, so that’s what inspires you most and inspires you to show up as an awesome teammate. How can you do that? How can you use this experience of perceived failure to be even more empathetic to your teammates?”

Andy: Well, what if they’re inspired because they like to post pictures on Instagram from the soccer games?

Brandilyn: Well then dig deeper and figure out what that is. “Okay, so you love people liking these pictures that you post on Instagram afterwards. What are you getting from that? Are you getting a sense of getting to feel confident? Are you getting a sense of feeling proud? Are you getting a sense of feeling liked? What is it that you’re looking for in that situation? And then how can you be that? How can you go be a person that gives that to other people since you know what this experience is like?”

Andy: I love the section of your book where you kind of walk people through how to do that and there’s fill in the blanks. And the idea is to dissect your goals and figure out why you’re pursuing these things. What is the need that you’re trying to fill by achieving this goal? Could you just embody that now without achieving this thing first? I think that’s cool and that sounds like what you’re sort of suggesting, right, with your teenager is figuring out what your teenager’s goals are. What are the things that they’re working towards?

Andy: And honestly, some of these things are probably things that you as a parent have inserted in there, but there are definitely things that your teenager is working towards and figuring out what those reasons are is really important. What are some examples of some of those needs that you might try to stay tuned for and categorize your teenager to?

Brandilyn: So again, when you look at what is my teenager striving towards? What really matters to them? Do grades matter to them? Does popularity matter to them? Does being an athlete matter to them? Does being an artist matter to them? When you figure out those goals, then you can dig for the underlying commitments. And when you can get a teenager to understand that it’s not about winning the soccer game, but it’s about feeling loved and feeling proud, if they can understand that, then you could have conversations with them about, “Okay, why is your feeling loved and feeling proud conditional on winning the soccer game?” Because that really comes from a sense of unworthiness again, from a sense of like, “I’m only deserving of feeling loved and proud when I win.”

Brandilyn: Those are amazing teachable moments. Like when the kid loses the soccer game, that’s the perfect opportunity to have a conversation with them about, “Whether or not you win the soccer game means nothing about you. It means nothing about your lovability. It means nothing about your worth. And we are unconditionally proud of you regardless. Let this be an opportunity for you to practice being unconditionally proud of yourself and to empower other people in being unconditionally proud of themselves and unconditionally loved themselves.”

Brandilyn: Those moments of failure are actually the best time to jump in there and to teach about like, “This experience of feeling like a failure, that’s you giving your power to something outside yourself. That’s you saying, “Here soccer game, you are responsible for my happiness. Here math teacher, you are responsible for my happiness. Here person who judges for the school play, whatever, you are responsible for my happiness.”

Brandilyn: How can you reclaim that power and restore it to yourself so that you have that unconditional self love and conditional acceptance, unconditional pride? So figuring out what matters to your kids and then digging a little deeper to figure out what the way of being is. There’s literally a way of being that each one of your kid’s goals is reflecting. If they are really concerned with being a good student, what’s the way of being that they actually want to practice? They want to practice being inquisitive and curious and analytical and thoughtful. Those ways of being are unconditional and no teacher can give them permission to get to be that way. That’s their right.

Andy: It’s something that you can do, it’s active, whereas succeed is not really something that you can do. It’s dependent on other people approving of whatever you’ve done or whatever. I think that’s so interesting. It makes me think of this acting teacher that I studied with for awhile. Acting, it’s all about your objective and do you have a super objective throughout the whole story? Then in each scene your character has an objective, something that you’re trying to get from the other person. But she would boil down all the objectives and basically any character in any movie, there are only like three or four possible really deep objectives that she says you can boil it down into.

Andy: It’s like validation is one of the big ones, just the need to have people say that you’re enough and you’re good. Love, admiration, to have people look up to you is a big one. Power is a big one, to just have people listen to you and respect you and then redemption or feeling like you somehow need to make up for a shortcoming. It’s kind of what hit me in reading your book, is that a lot of the same thing that problems can often be boiled down to, are just like a few basic needs that we’re trying to fill with these behaviors.

Brandilyn: Exactly. And being able to teach kids that all of those things are things that they can give themselves, like, oh my gosh. If we could teach every child that they don’t need to seek for validation or love or approval or acceptance from anybody outside themselves. And that when they’re requesting for that, that’s actually just a request for them to give that to themselves. That’s their inner child or their, whatever you want to call it, asking, “Can you please, please, please just give this to me unconditionally without needing to go get it from all these other places?” Because really eventually we have to give it to ourselves anyways.

Brandilyn: It never truly satiates our need when we’re getting it from outside sources. So it’s just like, we can learn early on or we can spend 60 years of our life searching for it, and then realizing that it doesn’t come from outside sources. I think what’s happened this week in the news with two extremely successful people committing suicide, it shows literally success and outside validation is not correlated with happiness or fulfillment. We’ve been so programmed to believe that it is. And it’s such a shame because then when people finally do get all that outside validation and spend their lives searching for it, and then they realize that, oh, it didn’t even come from here. That’s, yeah.

Andy: The book is The Achievement Trap and I really encourage people to pick up a copy. Get one for your teenager, especially I think for teenage girls because you do dive into a lot of stuff on body issues in here that I think is so huge for teenage girls right now. I mean, it’s a really easy read, 135 pages. It’s got stories in it. Thank you so much for making the time to speak with us today about the achievement trap and about your book. It’s really cool work that you’re doing, so keep it up.

Brandilyn: Absolutely such a pleasure. Thank you so much.

About Brandilyn Tebo

An acclaimed transformational coach, healing retreat host, and inspirational speaker, Brandilyn Tebo is the author of The Achievement Trap: The Overachiever, People-Pleaser, and Perfectionist’s Guide to Freedom and True Success.

Once a type-A perfectionist who struggled with Anorexia, Brandilyn eventually found her way out of the achievement trap through a combination of inner work and deep meditation, coach trainings, and the study of eastern and western philosophies and mystical traditions. She went on to travel the world teaching empowerment workshops in high schools, prisons, Fortune 500 companies, and colleges.

Today, via her website, blog, and podcast, she coaches clients, readers, and listeners on how to remove internal barriers to following their hearts, changing the world, and being the fullest expression of themselves.

Find Brandilyn on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.